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School Textbooks In The United States

The schoolbook can be traced back to the close of the fifteenth century in Europe, but the actual term textbook did not come into general use until the latter part of the eighteenth century in England. In the colonial period in the United States, the religiously oriented New England Primer (1690) served as the beginning reader for more than a century and a quarter. Most schoolbooks were imported from England, such as the many editions of A New Guide to the English Tongue (1740), which included moral stories and religious selections, and the arithmetic text, Schoolmaster's Assistant (1743)–both written by Thomas Dilworth, an English schoolmaster. The turning point for the development of distinctive American textbooks was to emerge dramatically during the national period.

Americanization of Schoolbooks

The Revolutionary War cut off the supply of schoolbooks from England during its duration, and although American-born texts began to appear to meet the pent-up demand following the war, most schoolbooks continued to come from England. The epochal transformation was launched by Noah Webster's American Spelling Book (1783), a combined speller and reader, and his dictionaries (1806,1828). It was Noah Webster who recognized the need for a uniform American language to reflect the ideals and realities of the new country, as opposed to the social-class divisions marked by language in England and Europe. The vehicle for this transformation was his American speller, reader, grammar, and dictionaries, which, according to Henry Commager, made Webster "schoolmaster to America" and assured him "a place among the Founding Fathers" (p. 83).

Webster criticized the emphasis given to Latin and Greek, as well as the traditional uses of the Bible as a textbook. In addition to his school textbooks on American language, he authored other school textbooks in a range of subjects, including history, geography, and science. Although Webster's readers were moralistic and patriotic, he believed that whereas the nations of the Old World had inherited a long history of national identity, America had been created, and needed to establish its own authentic identity by means of education and language.

The McGuffey Readers

In 1836 the first two of what was to become a series of six grade readers appeared in Cincinnati. These were the McGuffey readers. Between 1836 and 1870 some 47 million copies of the McGuffey texts were sold. They became the textbooks of the nation, while also contributing to the establishment of the graded school and a more common curriculum. Heavily moralistic and Protestant in religious preachment, the readers were deemed to promote good character. In writing the readers (and the successive editions), the McGuffey brothers (William and Alexander) seemed oblivious to the Progressive pedagogical practices being transformed by the American experience. Nevertheless, the McGuffey readers served to promote a common curriculum that, according to Henry Commager, was a benevolent, not a chauvinistic, expression of nationalism.

Growth and Development of Textbooks

The educational systems in European nations were traditionally under national ministries, resulting in greater standardization and uniformity of curriculum, with the consequence that textbooks were relatively limited in variety. In contrast, the decentralized American system of education, coupled with the early universalization of public elementary and secondary education in the United States, proved to be fertile ground for the proliferation of textbooks, in both variety and quantity.

Early in the twentieth century, Progressive educators were criticizing rote textbook recitation–and promoting the uses of multiple textbooks and resource books. Units of work, or teaching units, were developed at leading Progressive schools, most notably the Lincoln School at Columbia's Teachers College, in an effort to articulate the new curriculum in the face of the traditionally segmented subject curriculum. A sixth-grade unit on architecture, for example, would require the usage of a vast array of books and other resource materials in integrating several previously isolated subjects. The unit of work also typically required students to become engaged in a corresponding variety of projects. Nevertheless, these developments did not curtail the growth and development of textbooks, but instead stimulated the production of supplementary texts and textbooks more realistically attuned to the nature of the learner and the need to connect subject matter to life experience. Since that time, textbooks have typically identified chapter groupings as units, although this practice has been more cosmetic than authentic or functional. Yet the better textbooks contained suggested activities, projects, and lines of inquiry beyond the actual textbook content.

Although Progressive education did not lead to the end of the textbook recitation, an early study by William Bagley (1931) found that while "straight" recitation from the single textbook was being used just about as frequently as the socialized recitation, contemporary educational theory was increasingly affecting teaching practices in a fairly profound fashion and moving it away from textbook-linked recitation. More than half a century later, in 1984, John Goodlad reported in his study of schooling that, although textbooks dominated the instruction in the sciences and mathematics, there was a wide range of textbooks and materials in classrooms. However, heavy emphasis was being given to workbooks and worksheets in various subjects, including mathematics, in a mode not always distinguishable from testing.

The early twenty-first century's national movement for standards and external testing has led to efforts to align the curriculum to the standardized tests and for teachers to engage in teaching the test, with the consequence that workbooks, worksheets, and photocopied exercises are increasingly being used. Just as with programmed instruction, the dominant mode of workbook/worksheet teaching and learning is established-convergent. In contrast, good textbooks will suggest activities, projects, and lines of inquiry that are emergent, and even divergent.

Textbook Controversies

Since the advent of computer-assisted instruction (CAI), much has been made of an impending educational revolution whereby print and paper will no longer be the memory of humanity. In a 1967 publication commemorating the centennial year of the U.S. Office of Education, a scenario of the school was envisioned in which, before the year 2000, textbooks and other books, and even teachers, would be replaced by the computer. Subsequent developments in educational technology have been accompanied by extravagant promises that eventually faded away. Considering the economy, convenience, and durability of the textbook, it is likely that new electronic technology will not replace the textbook, but will find a supplementary place in the teaching-learning process.

Since 1990 the pressure on school administrators to bring computers into schools created all too many instances where, in the face of limited facilities, space for library books was reduced to make room for computer stations. Considerable effort has been expended on integrating the computer into the curriculum, but virtually no thought has been given to integrating the curriculum with the computer. The most common uses of the computer in schools has been as an electronic workbook or worksheet.

A review of issues of the American Library Association's Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom finds virtually no instances of censorship of computer-based instruction programs, whereas the cases on censorship of school textbooks are legion. The most notorious case of textbook censorship stems back to 1925, when John T. Scopes, a Tennessee high school teacher, was brought to trial for having violated a state statute prohibiting the teaching of evolution–ironically by using a state-approved biology text. The case generated national and worldwide notoriety as the "World's Most Famous Court Trial," with William Jennings Bryan on the side of the state and Clarence Darrow for the defense. Scopes was convicted and fined $100. On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law, but reversed the lower court's decision on a technicality. The law in question was eventually replaced by a statute prohibiting the use of any textbook presenting evolution without a qualifying statement that evolution is a theory and not a scientific fact–thereby revealing the legislature's ignorance of what a scientific theory is.

The problem of academic freedom in the schools reached such a critical state in the 1930s that the American Historical Society issued a huge volume of more than 850 pages under the title Are American Teachers Free? (1936). The book devoted a lengthy article to the problem of textbook censorship. From the 1930s into the early 1940s, the leading social studies textbook series for junior and senior high schools, written by Harold Rugg, underwent the full assault of the National Association of Manufacturers, the Advertising Federation of America, the Hearst Press, the American Legion, and other ultra-right-wing groups and individuals seeking to portray the Rugg textbooks as subversive of American ideals and institutions. The Rugg textbooks traced the evolution of modern American democracy in the face of pervasive social problems and issues, but super-patriotic groups viewed any study of unsettling ideas and problems in American life as anti-American. By the early 1940s the Rugg textbooks had been completely removed from the schools. A similar fate befell the widely used Building America series (1935–1948) of supplementary pictorial social studies texts during the early years of the cold war. The Building America series was focused on thematic problems and issues in the building of American democracy.

Nationalizing Influences on the Textbook

In the wake of the cold war and the space race, an unprecedented national effort was financed with federal funds through the National Science Foundation to support curriculum reform projects in the sciences and mathematics so as to meet the "long range crisis in national security" (Bruner, p. 1). From the 1950s into the early 1970s, the overriding goal of this effort was to produce more scientists and mathematicians to meet the Soviet threat. Early on it had been anticipated that the newer instructional media would play a pivotal role in these national projects, but the mainstay turned out to be the textbook.

Controlled, directed, and promoted by university scholar-specialists, the projects embraced a discipline-centered doctrine focused on specialized, puristic, theoretical, and abstract knowledge. University scholars in the social sciences and other fields soon jumped on the discipline-centered bandwagon. With very few exceptions, the project progenitors avoided controlled research, thereby violating a fundamental principle of scientific inquiry. By the late 1960s and into the early 1970s it was becoming increasingly apparent that what had been heralded as the "new math," "new physics," and so on, had failed to deliver what was promised. The number of college majors in the sciences underwent a sharp decline, and noted scientists and mathematicians who had not been involved in the discipline-centered projects began to examine the school textbooks and proceeded to issue devastating reports criticizing the textbooks and other materials for being too abstract and theoretical for children and adolescents. Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling made a blistering attack on the "new chemistry" texts for covering far too much information and advanced theoretical material, making them incomprehensible to the high school student, and recommended that the chemistry textbooks be reduced to half their size.

In effect, had the textbooks been reviewed by a wider range of authorities from the outset, the massive failure of the national discipline-centered curriculum reforms could have been avoided, and appropriate textbooks could have been created. Clearly the lesson was that textbooks should be subjected to the test of face validity by a cosmopolitan jury of authorities in the field, including educators. Totally neglected in the discipline-centered textbooks were the nature and interests of the learner, practical knowledge applications, and connections of the discipline with bordering fields of knowledge. This was also the case for the national discipline-centered projects in the social sciences and language and literature, which, in the pursuit of puristic knowledge, failed to make connections of the subject matter with the wider social life of American democracy. In following their specializations, the scholars deliberately dismissed the democratic sociocivic function of the curriculum as "ideological bias" (Tanner 1971, pp. 200–201).

More Disputations

The latter half of the 1960s witnessed the full social impact of the civil rights movement, protests against the escalating Vietnam War, and outbursts of civil disobedience in major cities–accompanied by student disruptions on college campuses that filtered down into high schools. The demand in colleges and schools was now for curriculum relevance. A host of neoromantic best-selling books appeared calling for laissez-faire pedagogy and even for the elimination of textbooks and the preplanned curriculum. Following a brief period of extreme child-centered classrooms and the uses of au courant materials in the secondary schools in the name of relevance, a counterreaction of back to basics set in, with emphasis being given to statewide minimum-competency testing.

In a postmortem effort examining the fall of the national disciplinary curriculum-reform projects, the National Institute of Education formed a task force in 1975. In its report the chair of the task force attributed the collapse of the federally supported projects largely to the forces of censorship, capped by a congressional attack on one of the projects in 1975, and although the new biology textbooks had been attacked by antievolutionists, it was clear that most of the projects were not targets of censorship and were already in a state of imminent collapse by the late 1960s.

Unfortunately, teachers, textbook authors, and publishers sometimes engage in self-censorship. For example, as a means of avoiding attacks by creationists, the leading center for curriculum development in life sciences for schools produced modular materials for one of its projects, rather than a textbook, allowing schools and districts the option of avoiding any of the modules that may be contentious–such as the module on evolution. Whatever the marketing benefits may be, such as the claim of "flexibility," the fact remains that such an approach only segments the curriculum and in the case of evolution, keeps students in ignorance of a foundational paradigm of life sciences.

Dumbing-Down of Textbooks

By the mid-1980s it was becoming increasingly clear that the back-to-basic retrenchment and minimum-competency standards had resulted in a renewed proliferation of worksheets, workbooks, and the dumbing-down of textbooks. Despite its reckless language in scapegoating the public schools for the decline in U.S. industrial productivity, the 1983 report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education (A Nation at Risk) leveled some cogent criticisms at the minimum-competency tests (required in most of the states) for actually lowering educational standards and recommended that textbooks be made more challenging. The report held that textbook expenditures and related instructional materials had declined by 50 percent over the previous seventeen years and recommended that expenditures for textbooks and other curriculum materials should be raised to between 5 and 10 percent of the operating costs of schools–many times the then current level. In 1984 U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell accused publishers of "dumbing down" their textbooks, but he failed to acknowledge that the dumbing-down is the inevitable consequence of curriculum fundamentalism, back-to-basics retrenchment, and censorship pressures.

In 1985, upon the recommendation of the California Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission, the California State Board of Education rejected many of the science textbooks for having failed to address controversial topics adequately, and many mathematics texts for stressing "apparent mastery" of mechanical skills without conceptual understanding and experiential application in problem-solving situations. Within several months, revised textbook editions appeared. One publisher, which had not even listed the topic of evolution in the index of its textbook, produced a revised edition within a year with an entire chapter on evolution. Based on the California experience, it would appear that a knowledgeable curriculum development commission in other states could serve not only as an antidote to censorship, but also as a vehicle for the continual improvement of textbooks and other curriculum materials. Faculty curriculum committees at the local school level could also serve in this capacity.

Change and Challenge

Good textbooks codify and synthesize knowledge in ways appropriate to the cognitive, affective, and social growth of learners. The durability and popularity of the textbook reside in its economy and flexibility. The fact that textbooks have served historically as prime targets for censorship of ideas is testimony that textbooks are powerful media for emergent, and even divergent, learning. The textbook should not be seen as the syllabus or complete course of study, but should be created as a vehicle for opening up avenues for further inquiry and the use of a range of print materials and other media. Whether the school textbook is designed to meet the function of general education, exploratory education, enrichment education, or even specialized education, to be successful it must be generative in ideas, concepts, and skills for meaningful applications in the life and growth of the learner. Such textbooks should relate to and draw from bordering areas of knowledge. But even the best textbooks depend on the teacher for their successful use as a vehicle for emergent learning.

The programmed textbook failed for many of the reasons cited above–for its narrow-minded behavioristic focus on established-convergent learning, its segmental and mechanical format and approach to knowledge, its mechanistic multiple-choice or fill-in-the blank mentality, and its artificiality in failing to engage the learner's imagination and life experience, to list just a few shortcomings. Unfortunately the workbook and worksheet persist, while the computer has commonly been used in school as an electronic worksheet aligned to external tests. Over the short history of the programmed textbook, censorship was never a problem. As noted by Judith A. Langer and Richard L. Allington in 1992 and by Daniel Tanner in 1999, the established-convergent programming repertoire found no place for provocative ideas.

In the contemporary scene, publishers would do well to cut down on the uses of readability formulas in the construction of textbooks and instead center reading materials on ideas. Even preschoolers can follow a story line, which requires the development of plot, character, sequential events, and relational ideas. Idea-oriented teaching, rather than error-oriented teaching, is required for a generative curriculum.

For more than a century, Progressive educators have deplored the direct textbook recitation method and the use of the textbook as the sole curriculum source for a subject at each grade level. Teachers have been urged to use multiple texts and a rich variety of material resources and activities beyond the texts. Progressive educators promoted and produced textbooks that stimulated students to investigate problems of persistent personal and social significance. In the early twenty-first century, it is not uncommon to find a beginning college textbook in ecology, for example, perfectly suitable for use at both the college and high school levels. The wide range of appeal stems from the appropriateness of the interdisciplinary material to the life of the learner in the wider society.

The design and function of the textbook at virtually any level should be directed at interrelating or correlating the content with bordering areas of knowledge so as to empower the learner in the uses to which knowledge is put. As Margaret McKeown and Isabel Beck noted in 1998, the textbook should be so designed as to reveal turning points, rather than end points, in the development and uses of knowledge.

In a multicultural society there will always be divided and special interests that will seek to impinge on the teacher's right to teach and the student's right to learn. But an enlightened citizenry requires freedom of inquiry. Historically, those who would seek to curtail the free currency of ideas in the teaching-learning process have focused their efforts on print media, especially the school textbook.


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